Educators, parents, and others often debate the important question of when sexuality education should begin. In reality, however, values and information concerning sexuality surround children early on, arguably from birth, through their families, the media, and just about everywhere. Based on their exposure to family, media, peers, and other sources, children develop their own understandings of relationships and sexuality in general. In a controversial example, some have been pretty upset about the television show Toddlers & Tiaras. Because some learning is happening no matter how intentional (or not), toddlerhood is an ideal time to begin introducing sexuality-related topics in a factual, healthy, and of course, age appropriate way. Even some mainstream media has caught on, advocating for early sexuality education.
Developmental Characteristics of Toddlers
In order to be effective in working with any age group, an educator or caregiver would need to have at least a basic understanding of developmental characteristics and how they can impact learning. Newman and Newman define toddlerhood as between the ages 2 and 5. They suggest that there are a few main developmental tasks at this age: increased locomotion, language and communication skills, fantasy play, and self control. The way we talk to toddlers can be especially important. In terms of language skill development, it is important to note that toddlers have some “capacity for semiotic or representational thinking – understanding that one thing can stand for another” (p. 199). However, these capacities for representational thinking are still very concrete in nature. For instance, some 3 year olds may be able to grasp that a baby grows in a uterus. With language development, toddlers are also known for “fast-mapping” new words. In other words, because toddlers may hear countless words they don’t know in a day, they form initial and partial understandings of a new word, often based on other words they already know. Over time and with more exposure they can build on this understanding. Keeping this in mind, it helps to both repeat new words in different contexts and to associate it with something concrete, such as a toy or an image. One final consideration for working with toddlers is their stage of pyschosocial development as articulated by Erik Erikson. At this age most children struggle with feelings of autonomy versus shame and doubt. In short, they want to be able to do things themselves, and if they can’t they often experience lingering feelings of shame (Newman & Newman, 2012).
Implications for Educators & Caregivers
As students and sexuality educators, we may not anticipate working directly with toddlers very often or at all. However, being prepared to work across the lifespan can be useful in many contexts, whether being asked to fill in or even working with parents of young children. Of course, there are many barriers to toddlers receiving quality information about sexuality, such as social pressure, perceived age appropriateness, or parental nervousness (Stone, Ingham, & Gibbins, 2013). However, as mentioned before, sexuality education takes place is virtually all settings, whether or not we are calling it that. The developmental characteristics of toddlers discussed above can provide a useful starting place when choosing play activities, toys, and language to promote healthy sexual development.
Here’s a few examples of what sexuality education could look like in everyday life with children between about 2 and 5:
- Using accurate language for body parts, including genitals and reproductive organs. Although it might seem uncomfortable at first, using euphemisms could actually be harmful in the long-term.
- Asking children before touching them, and respecting their decision not to be touched. Part of this includes supporting them during that uncomfortable moment when grandpa, or whoever, insists on that kiss goodbye, as the child clings to your leg. This can help empower children to take ownership of their own body; plus, it’s never too early to teach children about consent.
- Similarly, encouraging children to respect others’ bodies with a gentle and positive firmness. They might not understand the first many times they are told not to touch, pinch, hit, bite, etc. But they will eventually. It’s never too early (or late!) to encourage them to ask permission to touch another person. Again, this is about teaching consent.
- Allowing, encouraging, validating gender exploration. My 2.5 old went through a phase of some days self-identifying as a boy, other days as a princess. Why discourage that?
Readers, do you have any suggestions or resources for folks working with toddlers? What are some of your favorite books geared toward young children?
Newman, B.M. & Newman, P.R. (2012). Development Through Life: A Psychosocial Approach (11th Ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
Stone, N., Ingham, R., & Gibbins, K. (2013). ‘Where do babies come from?’ Barriers to early sexuality communications between parents and young children. Sex Education, 13(2), 228-240. doi:10.1080/14681811.2012.737776